Raiding season is fast approaching. Many of you yearn for adventure, the feel of salt-spray on your faces, and the chance to prove your honor and win such glory that your forefathers will sing your name and your children will ask to hear the stories again over the long next winter.
But where you might find yourself loading up with kevlar and lead-spitting black rifles, hopping into a HUMVEE or MRAP or crossing seas aboard a C-130 or C-5, I thought I might cast your minds back 1000 years to another group of hard-handed and steely-eyed warriors plying their trade by blood, fire and steel: the Vikings. I wanted to tell you a little about their wargear, and why it worked so well.
These Scandinavian warrior-traders would raid the coastal towns of the North Sea and Atlantic for booty, conquest, glory (and also just for the thrill of exploration). They reached as far as the Baltic sea and Mediterranean by littoral water and riverine routes, and there is archaeological evidence they went as far as Baghdad, not to mention colonizing Greenland, Iceland and almost certainly making it to North America.
How did they do it, what did they use?
Instead of Cordura, nylon, ceramic plates and kevlar, the Vikings typically wore quilted woolen or linen clothes with leather belts and metal broaches. Their armor consisted of helmets, shields and heavy leather tunics, or chain mail if you were rich enough. Rich or professional warriors might have had a metal helmet, but leather and wood would probably have been the basis for the average foot-slogger.
They fought mostly on foot and used their ships mainly as a transport to the scene of battle, so heavy armour was not part of the regimen since full plate armour isn’t something you’d wear to go over the side of a long boat. Chain mail is a real pain to make, not only in drawing out all the wire, curling it and cutting it into uniform lengths. But to make it effective, it needs to be welded or riveted together. It’s expensive and heavy, and only good for stabbing and slashing attacks even when over layers of padding. “Better to be fast and deadly” was the Viking way.”
That said, almost all Vikings would have borne their shield. Viking shields were usually round and made of spruce, fir, or pine in a single plank layer (although sometimes double layered), butted together and featuring a domed metal boss. Sometimes they were covered in hide with the rim strengthened by an iron band. They were typically about 1 meter in diameter, and protected the body from shoulder to thigh. Often the shields were brightly painted. Interlocked with the man (or woman) on either side, they could form a very effective shield wall, and their tactics excelled at using them to devastating effect.
Wealthy Vikings wore strong iron helmets, although few examples remain. Most depicted in art of the time were simple cup shapes, with a strip of metal to protect the nose. Others were more complex and had a goggle-shaped mask that protected the eyes and nose, and flaps to protect the neck.
No, there were no horns on Viking helmets. Horns aren’t high-speed or low-drag.
As far as weapons go, the Vikings had some cutting-edge gear which, coupled with their warrior ethos, put them at the head of pretty much everyone’s “run-when-you-see-them” list.
The Viking spear was probably their most popular weapon; not as expensive or as difficult to make as a sword, but still very deadly. They had a slender, tapering blade up to 50 centimeters long attached to a wooden shaft by a socket. They were very dangerous thrusting weapons, and they could also be thrown, depending on the size and design. The Viking spear was typically long enough that the owner could reach up and touch the pin holding the head to the haft. This style of spear was good for thrusting, and even slashing, given the long broad head.
The Viking battle axe was also a very deadly weapon. It could easily cleave through armor and still leave a mortal wound. They were made by welding a sharp cutting edge onto a shaped block of iron. The butt end was then slotted over a wooden handle and wedged tight. It served multiple purposes as it was also their working axe. This made it a very affordable weapon that any able-bodied person in Viking culture could be expected to wield effectively. The forward sweeping front “horn” enables the Viking axe to be used as a stabbing weapon, and the broad hook of the bottom hone allowed it to grab, sweep, hook and otherwise entangle an opponents weapons or defense. It could also be used for climbing over balustrades.
But the greatest of a Viking’s weapons was his sword. It was highly prized for its fighting strength and was a status symbol; the higher the rank of the warrior, the greater the sword. These swords usually had a wide, double-edged blade, were between 70 and 80 centimeters long, rarely had a sharp point (being slashing weapons), and often had a richly decorated hilt. The blades were pattern welded, and had a fuller ground out the length of the blade. The fuller lightened the blade without reducing its strength while increasing its flexibility. Swords were thought so highly of that many Vikings named them. These were some very significant pieces of war-gear.
As well as swords, axes and spears they also utilized long and short bows, plus knives, including the iconic seax broken back daggers. The Viking warrior was geared up and loaded up for battle. They were so successful that even now, 1000 years later, warriors emulate them.
Live hard, train hard, fight hard and do so with honour. perhaps in another thousand years, the same will be thought of you.
A man should not step one foot
forth in the field without weapons.
One cannot know, when on the road,
when he will need his spear.
–The Hávamál- Stanza 38
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